There have been a plethora of female icons in the wake of Ethel Merman. But it’s possible that none will ever be as gay (not even Judy Garland). Why, you ask? Well, chiefly because of the musical theater element of Merman’s career. While younger gay men (read: twinks) might have trouble seeing the value in this, they can, if nothing else, see how camp and esoteric musical theater in general is.
What will always undeniably make Ethel Merman the Queen of Gay is her frequent roles in musicals by Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin. Songs like “You’re the Top” (the subtext of which is just too obvious), “Blow Gabriel Blow” (which seems to have no subtext at all) and “I Get A Kick Out of You” are just a few among Merman’s many flamboyant offerings.
And it isn’t just Merman’s songs that make her an unmatchable gay icon. It’s her entire castrating, ball-busting persona. Moreover, her vulgar sense of humor and love of crude jokes helped spawn yet another gay icon, Helen Lawson in Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (also a beacon of kitsch).
Another important trait Merman had going for her was the fact that she was tragic. Madonna once complained to her dancing mentor, Christopher Flynn, that she would never appeal to gays because she wasn’t tragic enough (though, of course, this turned out to be completely off the mark). Merman, however, embodied tragedy in spades, including her four divorces and the death of her daughter, Ethel Jr.
Moreover, Merman’s ability to make fun of her larger than life, grandiose stature is also part of what contributes to her being a goddess of camp, ergo a goddess of gay. This much is apparent in her cameo in Airplane!, wherein she plays a traumatized soldier convinced he’s Ethel Merman.
Ironically, Merman was a Republican, though, in her defense, she was more of an Eisenhower Republican than a George W. Bush one.